A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. —Alfred Hitchcock
Suspense happens when a scene becomes charged with anticipation. It’s the possibility of what might happen that keeps the reader on the edge of her chair.
Think of the classic suspense scene in the Alfred Hitchcock movie Suspicion. The Joan Fontaine character believes that her charming, wastrel husband, played by Cary Grant, is an embezzler and a murderer who is now out to poison her.
—by Hallie Ephron, author of Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel
There’s a long shot as Grant mounts the stairs, and then the camera focuses on the nightly glass of milk he carries up to her. Everyone in the audience is wondering: Is it poisoned? To heighten the threat and foreboding, Hitchcock had a light bulb placed inside the glass to give it an eerie glow.
To create suspense, your job is to do the literary equivalent of what Hitchcock did by putting that light bulb in the milk: Build dramatic tension by making the ordinary seem menacing.
The writer’s tools for achieving this are sensory detail and the slowing down of time.
1. Turn up the Sensory Detail.
By focusing on the right sensory detail, you can heighten the sense of potential menace in everyday objects.
Take this example from my co-written novel, Amnesia. Peter Zak and Annie Squires approach a house where they suspect one of Peter’s patients is being held captive.
Tall bushes shrouded a shadowy front porch. Only a sliver of light between drawn drapes suggested anyone was home.
Someone had made an effort to dress up the house for Halloween. On the small lawn, dried cornstalks were teepeed around a lamppost. A pumpkin grinned from the top of a wheelchair ramp. Opposite the pumpkin was a little barrel of chrysanthemums. Beside the front door, barely visible in the shadow, a scarecrow dummy wearing a cowboy hat was slumped in a chair. I exhaled, realizing I’d been holding my breath.
Annie got out and eased the car door shut. I did the same.
We moved up the side of the house, crouching as we passed under the dark windows. I was conscious of every sound—my own breathing, traffic whooshing up and down the adjacent streets, the far-off pulsing wail of a siren. At every step, the sound of leaves crunching underfoot seemed thunderous.
Here the traditional trappings of a New England autumn, like a pumpkin and a scarecrow dummy, seem ordinary and ominous at the same time.
Now let’s take apart the pieces and look at what happens, alongside the sensory details that are used to create the suspense and highlight the art of storytelling.
- Annie and Peter look at the house, get out of the car, and creep along the side of the house.
- Bushes shrouding the porch
- Sliver of light between front curtains
- Grinning pumpkin
- Scarecrow dummy slumped in the shadows
- Peter holding his breath
- Peter hearing his own breathing, traffic whooshing, leaves crunching.
By making your character hyper-aware of sensations and sound, you ratchet up the dramatic tension. It all adds up to a feeling of impending danger, though it isn’t clear from what.
Suspense is sustained by the absence of anything terrible happening, and the continued focus on detail.
Remember: Your goal is to heighten anticipation.
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2. Turn Down the Velocity.
Slowing down time increases suspense.
I deliberately drew out the moment Peter and Annie spend in the car looking at that house so it seemed longer than it would have if they were just arriving to deliver a package.
Here are some ways to slow things down:
Complex sentences: To create a feeling of apprehension about what might happen next, use longer, more complex sentences rather than rat-a-tat, subject-verb-object.
Internal dialogue: Let the reader hear your character’s thoughts.
Camera close-ups: You want the reader as close in as possible, experiencing the tension of your suspense sequence firsthand.
Quiet and darkness: Stillness and shadows suggest hidden menace.
3. Modulate Suspense.
Building suspense takes time. The reader will lose interest if all you do is pile on descriptive paragraph after descriptive paragraph, no matter how much menace there is in your descriptions. Break the tension by having something happen that advances the plot or provides a moment of comic relief.
There are many ways to insert a pause into suspense. The telephone rings. One of the characters cracks a joke (in real life, we all use humor to get through tense times).
Or, reveal something that seemed menacing to be ordinary: A scary shape turns out to be the shadow of a moonlit tree; a hand placed on your protagonist’s shoulder turns out to be his best buddy, come to help; boot heels stomping across a deserted parking lot turn out to belong to a man carrying a child on his shoulders.
For example, that excerpted scene from Amnesia continues for four pages as Peter and Annie circle to the back of the house and check out the yard.
They find a boat and a sodden hooded sweatshirt, both of which advance the plot. Then:
A nearby branch snapped and we both hunkered down beside the boat. In the darkness, all I could see were little white paws mincing toward me and the white tip of a tail held aloft.
The innocuous pussycat provides a momentary release, a false payoff. The reader thinks phew, and relaxes.
Use this technique of inserting a brief respite or comic relief into a suspenseful scene to give readers a break, then continue to ratchet up the suspense to keep them hooked.
4. Foreshadow rather than telegraph.
Creating a suspense sequence that ends harmlessly is a good way to foreshadow something more sinister that happens later in your novel. For example, in Chapter 3 your protagonist goes into a dark, dank basement and emerges, joking about things that go bump in the night. In Chapter 23, she goes down into that same basement, and this time she finds the villain waiting for her. Be careful you foreshadow and don’t telegraph-giving away too much too soon is guaranteed to ruin the suspense.
The line between foreshadowing and telegraphing is a subtle one. Let’s say your female sleuth meets a man who turns out to be a serial rapist/murderer who preys on young businesswomen he picks up at yuppie bars. What would be foreshadowing, and what would be telegraphing? Consider this list of possibilities. Where would you draw the line?
- The man is charming: His nails are manicured, and he smells of expensive aftershave. She finds herself feeling a bit uneasy around him, but she can’t put her finger on why.
- The man’s eyes linger on the woman’s chest when they’re introduced.
- When the man shakes her hand, he places his other hand on the small of her back.
- When she gets ready to leave, he offers to walk her to her car, saying there have been some muggings in the neighborhood.
- She finds his direct, penetrating blue eyes unnerving.
- She notices a scratch on his face; he notices her noticing, and says his cat scratched him.
- She’s repelled by the man. He reminds her of the college football player who tried to rape her years earlier.
- The man opens his briefcase; she notices a copy of Hustler magazine tucked inside.
- The man opens his briefcase; she notices that the briefcase contains a roll of duct tape and handcuffs.
- The man’s name is Vlad Raptor.
For me, the first six items are foreshadowing. The last four telegraph to the reader that this guy is, at the very least, a pretty dodgy character.
When you insert a hint of what’s to come, look at it critically and decide whether it’s something the reader will glide right by but remember later with an Aha! That’s foreshadowing. If instead the reader groans and guesses what’s coming, you’ve telegraphed.
Ultimately, the line between foreshadowing and telegraphing is in the eye of the beholder.
5. Always End With a Payoff.
You can have a suspense sequence early in your novel that ends with nothing more than a harmless tabby padding off into the night. But as you near one of your novel’s end-of-act climaxes, the suspense sequence should pay off.
The payoff can be an unsettling discovery of evidence of a crime—finding a dead body, bloodstained clothing, a weapons cache, or that the floor of a basement has been dug up. The discovery might reveal a character’s secret. Finding love letters or a personal diary might reveal a hidden relationship between two characters. Finding drug paraphernalia in a car might suggest that a suburban matron has a secret life.
Or the payoff can be a plot twist: The bad guy confesses; the sleuth gets attacked, or locked in a basement, or lost in a cave; or the police show up and arrest the sleuth.
Here’s how the suspense sequence from Amnesia pays off a few pages later, after Peter and Annie break into the garage alongside the house.
It’s pitch-black inside, and Annie turns on a penlight and shines it along the fender of a red Firebird:
“Do you see what I see?” she asked, indicating a dent and a streak of dark green paint.
I started to answer when Annie put her finger to her lips and doused the light.
The door to the house on the opposite side of the garage opened. I crouched. Footsteps were barely audible, rubber soles crossing the garage’s empty bay. As my eyes got accustomed to the dark, I began to make out a pale round shape, floating, suspended in the shadows at about head height.
There was a click and the room sprang to light. I blinked away the brightness. Angelo di Benedetti stood facing me.
“Well, if it isn’t the expert witness,” he said, sneering.
He wore a black turtleneck and baggy black pants, rolled at the ankle above combat boots. His handsome face was hard and a vein pulsed in his forehead. He had his hands in his pockets.
I wondered where Annie was, but I didn’t dare look at the spot where I knew she’d been not 10 seconds earlier. Another instinct told me not to move suddenly.
The payoff here is the appearance of the villain. But there’s a surprise, too—Annie disappears. Peter knows she can’t have gone far. So suspense continues as Peter confronts the villain, and all the while, Peter (and the reader) worry that Annie’s whereabouts will be discovered.